It was more than three years ago when I opened a white carton box, still warm from the bottom, and took out my first ever, pastel de nata. I was working in an international kindergarten where kids from different countries constantly surrounded me. Being with children of different nationalities on their birthday’s means being able to sample some of their traditional food, too… Oh well, some jobs can really spoil you.
When I had my first bite into a warm yellow custard tart, I was sold. In fact, a couple of years later I asked Amalia’s mother, who is responsible for my “initiation” into Portuguese cuisine, which places she would recommend visiting in Portugal.
There were a few things we wanted to see/do when planning our travels to Portugal: Lisbon, Porto, Alentejo, The Azores islands, some hiking and satisfying our craving for pastel de nata. (Ehm, my craving.) Speaking of the Portuguese cuisine, we wanted to learn more about national dishes so we started to order in taskas (small restaurants) straight upon our arrival in the country.
Apart from sampling some new dishes every day from the menus starting in the south of Portugal, in Tavira all the way north to Porto, we were invited to join a food tour and get a broader picture of Portuguese food culture in Lisbon. We were able to get to know the city and the country better by walking through the well-known parts of the city, but also via off-beat squares, stopping at local food vendors, trying combinations of ingredients that locals eat, listening to stories of how sweets were invented, learning some local food related idioms, and sampling South African dishes that are part of the Lisbon cuisine as well.
Voyages and new flavours
The flavours of Portuguese cuisine are as variable and exotic as the country’s colonial history. The abundance of aromatic green olive oil, chopped garlic, and different fish in Portuguese dishes, is what reminds you of Mediterranean cuisine; while flavours of cinnamon, piri-piri red chillies and black pepper will bring you to the Far East.
It’s no surprise that Portuguese sailors came back from their numerous voyages to Africa and Asia not only with more conquered lands, but also with some of the finest spices in the world, which made the Portuguese Empire a pioneer among other European empires able to grow from the spice trade.
The combination of the familiar and the exotic is the core of a Portuguese meal. (At least, this is what our palates could identify during our three-week adventure around the country.) This isn’t enough to taste all of the national and local specialties, but we’ll gladly give you some tips on dishes not to be missed while in Portugal.
Some quintessential Portuguese dishes
365; this is how many ways that you can prepare a codfish in Portugal, our tour guide Filipa told us. Learn all the recipes, and you’ll have no trouble deciding what to cook for dinner for the whole year!
The cod used for Portuguese traditional bacalhau comes from Norway and Iceland. Not only is the fish served in restaurants all year long, but you’ll find boiled codfish with potatoes and hard-boiled eggs at Christmas dinner, too.
I don’t know if there’s any country that we’ve visited so far that combines some of our most favourite food in one dish. I’m an obsessive potatoes lover (blame my Eastern European roots) and to Gianni, fish is something he would never be able to omit from his diet. Well, looks like the Portuguese invented something that keeps us both happy while eating the same dish: bacalhau à brás!
A salty cod stew with chopped onions, fried potatoes, scrambled eggs, fresh parsley, and black olives on top. It is super filling, as you can imagine, and if the chef is too generous with oil, you might want to have some salad for your next meal.
Another delicious cod variation is bacalhau with chickpeas and hard-boiled eggs on the side (and stay tuned for the other 363 cod recipes…)
One of the most unimaginable codfish recipes to try is Mil Folhas; codfish layered in-between thin slices of bread, black pork presunto, arugula and egg.
Where to get some:
For excellent codfish with chickpeas visit Cervejaria Caravela, Rua Poeta Emiliamo da Costa, Tavira
For some filling bacalhau à brás, go to Snack-Bar Restaurante Mariazinha, Rua São José 232, Lisbon
For Mil Folhas, check Gadanha Merceneria, Largo Dragões de Olivença 84 A, Estremoz
Sandwiches and bagels in Portugal
“We Portuguese are crazy about sandwiches and bagels,” says Filipa while sitting in a small taska near the vibrant center of Lisbon (this is also where hipsters stop by to get a chunky sandwich.) If you are a meat lover or burger addict, then you might be delighted to pick one of three national sandwiches in Portugal:
1. Prego: a beef delicacy served with mustard or piri-piri (hot chili sauce) sometimes with fries, egg or rice).
2. Bifana: a pork variation served the same way as prego.
3. Leitao: a suckling pig sandwich
Note: piri-piri sauce is kind of an unofficial condiment made of chilies originally brought to Portugal from Angola and Mozambique. The chilies are blended with other herbs and spices that give the sauce a fiery burning taste. Piri-piri is usually given to you upon a request. Don’t expect any date of production or expiration details. Piri-piri requires trust in the bistro/taska where you grab your lunch.
Where to get some in Lisbon: Zé Dos Cornos, Beco dos Surradores 5, Lisbon. These guys here know their jobs very well, or as they say in Portugal, “They’ve been turning chicken for years,” meaning they’re truly experts in what they do.
Presunto Ham from Alentejo
There will be always a dispute about the best olive oil producer, and additionally there will be the same “fight” for who makes dry cured ham best. Portuguese presunto has some great competitors among Italian prosciutto crudo and Spanish jamón and yet, it stands on the top of the dry cured ham category in all of Europe.
Getting high quality presunto however, can become quite an expensive way to get know Portuguese cuisine… Sometimes the price for 65 months old aged ham can be around $400 USD per kilo. Presunto is made from Black Iberian Pig fed by acorn and bred in grasslands of the southwest area of Portugal.
Where to get some in Lisbon: Manteigaria Silva, Rua Dom Antão de Almada, 1C, Lisbon.
Fragrant, cured, mild, spicy or sweet kicking! Some of them can be “challenging” even for experienced cheese lovers.
“Cheese and marmalade are like Romeo & Julia, they just go together,” explains Filipa, and we can only nod in agreement while stuffing our hungry stomachs with sheep & goat milk cheese that indeed matches with quince marmalade very well.
Another cheesy surprise on our food tour in Lisbon was cured São Jorge cheese made of unpasteurised cow’s milk. This high quality delight originates on the island of São Jorge in Azores, where supposedly there are more cows than people.
Good news for goat cheese lovers! Portugal is a splendid place to get some queijo de cabra, and in some places you’ll be able to taste it with some extravagant combinations like pickled pear, honey and nuts. Oh, more of these food experiments please!
Where to get some:
Zé Dos Cornos, Beco dos Surradores 5, Lisbon
For cheese extravaganza, visit Gadanha Merceneria, Largo Dragões de Olivença 84 A, Estremoz
For scrumptious local cheese, stop at Tasca Larga-a-Velha, Rua Dr.Ramos de Abreu 21, Borba
In some countries like Ukraine, Italy and in the Middle Eastern cuisine it’s pretty common to eat bread with any dish at any time of the day. The same applies for Portuguese dining. There’s always a basket of fresh toasted, heavenly good bread on the table.
Good quality bread on the table in a restaurant=good quality restaurant.
In many restaurants you’ll pay extra for it, as well as for the butter, cheese and other condiments that they bring you while you’re studying the menu. In a few small local taskas however, they serve bread for free. As Filipa remarked, “There’s always a sauce to dip (it) in!”
Marinated Tremoços (Lupini beans)
This is one of the best street food delicacies in Portugal. It is often sold alongside the famous ginjinha liquor. Marinated in olive oil, garlic, black pepper, and parsley; the taste resembles broad beans mixed with chickpeas.
We got a fresh portion of them at the Santo Antonio festival in Lisbon from Karmelita, a hefty lady sitting at a small table selling ginjinha and lupini beans to tourists without speaking a word of English.
Note: For the recipe, check Jodi’s Ettenberg post on Portuguese lupini beans.
Snails in Portuguese cuisine
Honestly, I’m not a big fan of these tiny shells cooked in broth, but for Gianni who comes from the south of Italy; snails were a common homemade dish he would go outside and harvest them himself so his mother would prepare it.
Having seen how skillfully Filipa sucked it all out of the shell, I concluded that only people from the south could do this with such passion.
As we learned from our guide, the Portuguese drink more beer than wine (because the lower alcohol content is more bearable in hot weather) and snails are usually a good reason to grab a pint or two after work.
Mexilhões à Bulhão Pato or Portuguese style mussels
No need to be a master chef to prepare this meal. Just get some fresh mussels, add some garlic, white wine, lemon juice, coriander, parsley, onion, and olive oil. Mix it all in the pan, and the miracle is done! Once the meal is ready, spare the broth. It’ll be a precious base for some risotto that you can prepare later.
Where to get some in Lisbon: Moules & Gin, Mercado de Fusão, Martim Moniz, Lisbon
Okay, this is a bomb. A fat bomb from Porto. Now, I just wonder if the Portuguese idiom “Women and sardines; you want them to be small,” was invented before or after the Francesinha. We’re unsure how it could be possible that Portuguese women get a portion of a sandwich made from layers of bread, wet-cured ham, dry cured linguiça sausage, fresh sausage, beef steak or roast meat, covered with melted cheese and floating in a hot thick tomato & beer sauce with some french fries on the side… and keep their “sardines shape?!”
Where to find some: Confeitaria Central, Pç. Carlos Alberto, 124, Porto
Looking back at history, Portuguese sweets (or “sugary sins”) were always tolerated. Since the 17th century nuns and monks started using more sugar ( originally coming from Brazil and Madeira islands) instead of honey in the convent desserts, which resulted in hyper sweet Doces Conventuais; yellow sweets mostly made of sugar, egg yolks and almonds.
To justify their baking experiments, let’s just say they tried to use all products with minimum waste. Convents and monasteries used to use egg whites for starching and purifying wine. Now, can you imagine how much waste of yolks it would have been? Some of the wine producers fed the poor and pigs with yolks in the past, but apparently, nuns and monks came up with different use for it that has remained till now.
If you don’t mind a bit of raw yolk taste, go for encharcada, a kind of porridge with the texture of sugar, yolks, almonds, cinnamon and lemon zest.
Another scrumptious Portuguese dessert we got to try was Farófias with strawberries; sweet crispy balls in a vanilla custard.
You’ll find some more sugar also in Portuguese idioms. Our favourite one is “They do marmelade”, meaning, “they’re kissing.”
Where to get some: For a strawberry covered appetizing dessert, go to Gadanha Merceneria, Largo Dragões de Olivença 84 A, Estremoz
Pastel de nata
Honestly, we got quite spoiled with these fantastic pastries in Portugal, from the day 1 until our last day in our Airbnb accommodation in Porto, where our host Louis brought us a fresh portion of hot egg tarts sprinkled with cinnamon every day.
Protip: make sure to buy only fresh pastries. Once pastel de nata gets cold, its taste is far from the one when it’s nicely warm.
Where to get some: For pastel de nata and convent sweets, check Confeitaria Nacional, Praça da Figueira, 18B, Lisbon
Beyond Portuguese cuisine
In the 80’s and 90’s, Lisbon built a lot of supermarkets in Mouraria district with Asian food. Naturally, veggies and fruit markets are nowadays full of exotic non-European products because of the international community in town.
“We Portuguese might be shy and less confident than other western European countries, but we are respectful in welcoming people of different cultures, religions and political opinions,” points out Filipa before we head to a Mozambian restaurant – a perfect example of how well cultures mingle in Portugal.
Expats from Mozambique, once colonized by Portugal for over four centuries until 1975, create a large ethnic community in Lisbon. To get a taste of some non-Portuguese cuisine in Portugal, we highly recommend a restaurant run by Mozambicans since 1982.
Tip: Don’t miss the starter chamussa (a kind of Indian samosa, which is the example of influence of Indian cuisine, since natives from Goa once lived in the territory of Mozambique) with “bastard” hot sauce!
Where to get some in Lisbon: Cantinho do Aziz, Rua de São Lourenço 5.
Insiders tip on getting a special food experience:
Time your visit to Lisbon during the Santo Antonio festival, which is traditionally on the 12th and 13th of June each year. The city turns into a big festivity and of course, food is a major part of it. If you haven’t eaten enough sardines in Portugal by now, Santo Antonio festival is the right place to make it up!
We were lucky enough to be in the capital the day before the festival started. It was that late evening when we were roaming around with a dear friend Emanuele, a great travel photographer who lead us through Alfama neighbourhood and we witnessed all of the preparation works in progress.
Smoke from the grilled sardines and sausages covered all the busy street vendors, and all possible courtyards turned into open air bistros, each with its own pop music blasting from behind the counter, competing with dramatic songs of fado coming from a nearby elegant restaurant.
The oldest remaining tea plantation plantation in Europe
You’re guessing right. Portugal, the São Miguel island of Azores in particular, is where you’ll find the oldes plantation in Europe with suitable conditions for growing tea. However, in the mainland, locals are more coffee lovers.
That said, next time that you buy a pack of black tea, check the producer. Those 40 tonnes of dry tea that the Gorreana Tea plantation produces on their 23 hectares of land must be somewhere!
A few more tips on dining in Portugal
While being under British influence thirty years ago, the Portuguese took over some of their dining manners, too. For example, in the past, you could find a Portuguese family having a dinner already around 6-7pm, which would never happen nowadays.
When arranging a dinner with your Portuguese friends, expect to start eating no earlier than 8 pm, similarly to other Mediterranean countries, having your last meal of the day at 10 pm is pretty normal in Portugal.
Mind your budget
If you visit Portugal on budget, opt for prato do dia (a dish of the day) or menu do dia (menu of the day), which is considerably cheaper and quite tasty. In Lisbon, you can get a nice meal of the day for about $7 to $12 USD, depending on the area where you eat.
In smaller towns, or in a few places in Porto, the price will include also bread, coffee and a dessert, which you won’t find easily in Lisbon anymore.
If you don’t use much salt in your food like we do, then you might find some Portuguese dishes over salted. (Just a reminder before you put automatically some extra salt on your meal before tasting it.)
There is more than just the food that Portuguese are proud of, our guide Filipa told us. They have their three “Fs” that they admire a lot: 1. Fatima 2. Football 3. Fado. We say #4: Filipa! Because of her avid and cheery personality and distinguished knowledge of the history of Lisbon and Portugal and its cuisine!
Have you ever been to Portugal? Which dish was your favourite and why? We’d love to hear your experience! Please, leave a comment below.
Disclaimer: We were guests of Filipa from Taste of Lisboa food tour and invited by João Cavaleiro Ferreira from Casa do Terreiro do Poço to try some traditional food in Estremoz. On our trip to Portugal, we partnered with Interrail.eu, who provided us with two travel passes.